Andrew Hammond, Korea Times
Donald Trump on Sunday asserted that he is sanguine about the possibility of war breaking out between nuclear-armed North Korea and its neighbours. In his latest undiplomatic pronouncement, the billionaire businessman commented "if they do, they do...Good luck. Enjoy yourself folks".
Given Trump's increasing erratic foreign policy positioning, the fact that he remains a frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination is sending shockwaves around the world. And this is damaging the reputation of the United States (so-called ‘Brand America') internationally.
Trump's most recent comments have alarmed multiple US allies in Asia, and follow-on from his assertions last week that Washington should withdraw US troops from South Korea and Japan and allow those countries, and potentially others, including Saudi Arabia, to develop nuclear arsenals. While these idas enjoy some support in the United States and internationally too, it flies in the face of US foreign policy over decades which has largely been focused on preventing nuclear weapon proliferation.So significant was the level of diplomatic concern in Japan,both the prime minister and foreign minister responded forcefully, with the latter asserting that "it is impossible that Japan will arm itself with nuclear weapons".
And concerns about Trump in South Korea were compounded earlier this year by his assertions that the country "is a money machine but they pay us peanuts ... South Korea should pay us very substantially for protecting them". The offence caused to Washington's long-standing ally was such that the White House publicly rebuked the billionaire noting, for instance, that Seoul actually pays for 55% of all non-US personnel costs in the country.
These controversies are only the latest in a series of foreign policy indelicacies, in which Trump has piled on insult after insult, and apparently defied the laws of political gravity ― for now at least. Other examples of diplomatic angst he has caused relates to his plans for building a border wall with Mexico (which he claims he will persuade the Mexican government to pay for); a proposed ban on all Muslims entering the United States; and his remark that he couldn't rule out the use of tactical nuclear weapons, including on Europe.
The tragedy for the United States is that fall-out from these undiplomatic pronouncements are already rippling out internationally, and are likely to increase anti-US sentiment in some countries. In the words of former Malaysian Justice Secretary, Zaid Ibrahim, for instance, "if an idiot like Donald Trump can be contender for president, it speaks volumes about America".
And such feelings could undercut much of the work that President Barack Obama has undertaken to turn around the climate of perception about the country.Coming into office in 2009, Obama confronted a situation in which anti-US sentiment was at about its highest levels since at least the Vietnam War.The key factor driving this was the international unpopularity of the George W. Bush administration's foreign, security and military policies in the so-called ‘war on terror'.
The Obama team has made significant efforts to turn around this climate of international perception. And according to one research study that uses the same tools that consultants use to value corporate brands, the "Obama effect" was estimated to have raised the value of ‘Brand America' by 2.1 trillion dollars in the first year of his presidency alone.
This reflected the substantial increase in foreigners regarding the United States as the most admired country in the world again following the Bush presidency. And this turnaround in fortunes was not only been welcomed in Washington but also in Corporate America following concerns during the Bush years that US-headquartered multinationals were becoming a focus for commercial backlash from anti-Americanism.
However, despite these successes, Obama's progress has been uneven in the last seven years and he has not fully capitalised upon what former French President Nicolas Sarkozy has characterised as the country's "return to the hearts of the people of the world". Perhaps the biggest failure of Obama's global public diplomacy has been toward what he has called the Islamic world. Despite the early promise of his Cairo speech in his first term in which he sought to reset US relations with Muslim-majority countries, there remain pockets of very high anti-Americanism in several key states, including Pakistan and Egypt, which the president has failed to substantially address, as Pew Global Research surveys have shown over the last few years.
US public diplomacy problems, however, are not just restricted to Muslim-majority countries. Many internationally, for instance, have been disappointed by Obama's failed pledge to close Guantanamo Bay, and there is significant foreign unease about increased US use of drone strikes during his presidency.
It is in this context that foreigners are viewing the possibility of Trump's elevation to the presidency. It appears that global opinion could be even more hostile to him than Bush, highlighting the massive downside risks for Brand America should the controversial businessmanbecome the Republican nominee, let alone win November's presidential election.
While Trump has been roundly criticised by audiences across much of the world, it is in the so-called Islamic world where the potential risks are highest. For instance, his plan to "shut down" immigration into the United States from all Muslims has been called "unacceptable ... an insult to our religion" in the United Arab Emirates, while Egypt's top religious authority decried his "hostile view of Islam and Muslims". Thus, at the very time when US public diplomacy should redouble its efforts to win the battle for ‘hearts and minds' in Muslim-majority countries, the controversial businessman has all the makings of a diplomatic disaster.
Taken overall, Trumpis already doing damage to the reputation of the United States internationally. While Brand America has rebounded under Obama,Trump could prove to be one of the least popular ever US president overseas, highlighting the massive downside risks for the US image overseas should the controversial businessman become the Republican nominee, let alone win November's election.
Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS (the Centre for International Affairs, Diplomacy and Strategy) at the London School of Economics.